ANNOUNCEMENT: UNDERGRADUATE THESIS SYMPOSIUM

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We would like to extend an invitation to all to attend our annual Undergraduate Thesis Symposium, tomorrow, April 21st, 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM in BUR 436A.

This year, we have a collaborative symposium, drawing together the work of two American Studies Honors students and one Religious Studies Honors student.  Rebecca Amelia Harris and Denise Hunt from American Studies and Taylor Dieringer from Religious Studies will be presenting their fantastic thesis research, which they have spent the last year developing. The presentations include:

— Rebecca Amelia Harris, “Mulan: Cherry Blossom or Woman Warrior?”

— Denise Hunt, “Examining Children’s Fictional Media Post-9/11”

— Taylor Dieringer, “Leading Ladies: Authorship and the Influence of the Pastoral Epistles on Women in Church Leadership”

The thesis symposium functions as an informal end of year celebration for our department, one which enables us to honor the work of our students and faculty and contemplate the year gone by. We hope to see you there.

Undergrad Research: A Recap of the 5th Annual Honors Thesis Symposium

Today, we share with you this fantastic recap of last week’s Senior Honors Thesis Symposium, where three of our stellar seniors shared findings from their undergraduate theses. Rebecca Bielamowicz, also a senior and Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Honorable Mention, shares with us her take on the event. Enjoy!

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Max Mills, “In the Belly of the Cotton Kingdom: An Investigation of School Desegregation in Waxahachie, Texas”

Supervisor – Dr. Mark Smith

2nd Reader – Dr. Steven Marshall

Senior Max Mills conducted his yearlong project on the process of school desegregation in his hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, a community approximately 30 miles south of Dallas. Waxahachie, though no Little Rock, still resisted school desegregation through their adoption of piecemeal, halfhearted policies that did not guarantee full integration with “all deliberate speed.” It was not until 1970 that the Waxahachie Independent School District adopted district-wide desegregation policies and built a new high school that both whites and blacks could attend, and it was not until 1972, a full 18 years after the passage of Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, that the district was deemed sufficiently integrated by visiting federal agents.

Citing a lack of a comprehensive history of the desegregation process in WISD as the motivation for his project, Max went to work. To document this process, Max investigated old Waxahachie yearbooks, city council minutes, and conducted interviews with black and white students who had experienced the desegregation process firsthand. Yearbooks were visual proof of the ludicrousness of “separate but equal:” bathrooms and classrooms for black students, when compared side by side to their counterparts at the white high school, were pathetically dilapidated. The city council minutes demonstrated the extent of city officials’ foot dragging when policies to desegregate schools were perpetually tabled. Finally, interviews with former students yielded a range of different realities experienced under different district policies: Ira Gay, Jr., attended the white high school under the district’s 1965 Freedom of Choice Plan, which allowed Waxahachie students, both black and white, to attend whatever school they wanted to. He was the only black student at the white high school and said his presence caused little resistance. Conversely, Jackie Mims was forced to attend the white high school in 1968 after federal agents demanded that the district integrate their 10th, 11th, and 12th grades or face dissolution. “It wasn’t our school,” she said, and noted the violent fights that occurred often between white and black students. Interestingly, all white former students who Max interviewed asked that they remain anonymous and said they were “fine with integration” and argued that teacher resistance that was the real problem.

While memories of this process may differ, it’s hard to argue with today’s reality: as of 2010, 28 percent of black families in Waxahachie lived below the poverty line compared to 3.5 percent of non-Hispanic white families. Education promises equal opportunities for all, but it’s falling short. Max closed by stating the importance that lies in confronting Waxahachie’s history: although it is painful, it is necessary to do so in order to move forward.

 

Molly Mandell, “DIY Cuba”

Supervisor: Dr. Randy Lewis

2nd Reader – Dr. Steven Hoelscher

Senior AMS major and journalism minor Molly Mandell was able to put both of her degrees to use in her thesis project. Motivated by the sparse or inaccurate coverage Cuba has received throughout her lifetime and more recently since Cuban-U.S. relations have been on the mend, she took four trips and spent over three months collecting data in the country. While most coverage reinforces stereotypical understandings of Cuban life in the American imagination, such as antique cars, cigars, and beaches, her goal was to document what Cuban life was really like. Her initial focus was to photograph and interview farmers who were practicing sustainable, pesticide-free farming, but once she spent more time in the country, she realized that do-it-yourself or “maker” culture was flourishing seemingly everywhere in Cuban life.

When she asked Cuban linguistic graduate students why there wasn’t a word or phrase in Cuban Spanish to describe this “do it yourself” culture, they said it was because it wasn’t novel, but it was just their way of life. Although Molly’s project focused on Cuba, her findings shed an illuminating light on American culture. When she returned to the United States, she experienced what she called reverse culture shock: in the United States, more and bigger is always better, and something that would never have been thrown away in Cuba would probably be tossed out here without so much as a second thought. Informed by these observations, she makes the distinction between lifestyle DIY and essential DIY. Lifestyle DIY is often practiced by upper-middle class consumers and facilitated by products like Make magazine or websites like Pinterest. In contrast, Cubans practiced what she calls essential DIY, which, although it can be a deeply fulfilling and enjoyable practice, stemmed from economic necessity and a lack of other resources.

Through stunning photographs and tidbits from interviews, Molly told us of the people she met and the projects they were working on. One jack-of-all-trades English tutor, German tutor, and seamstress, sewed on her great, great grandmother’s sewing machine. Although she sewed, she admitted that her real passion was knitting and crocheting. She shared with Molly a picture of herself proudly wearing her first crocheted dress she created at 16. White and full length, it took her three months to complete. We also heard about Damian, who wandered the streets of Havana searching for materials from old paint cans, cars, or refrigerators that he could use to make his artwork because art supplies are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Cuba. He had plans to renovate an old factory to turn it into a space where he and other artists could work. Navis biked 25 kilometers each way to earn a business degree from the university. When she saw that there was a dearth of bike shops, she used her degree and knowledge of bikes to open one.

The profiles Molly conducted were genuine, detailed documents of contemporary Cuban life that have gone untold by American reporters, and she plans to turn this project into a full-fledged e-book in the near future.

 

Liz Garlow, “Manifesting Outward: A Prosopography of the Feminist Spirituality Movement in Central Texas”

Supervisor: Dr. Jeffrey Meikle

2nd Reader: Dr. Martha Selby

AMS senior Liz Garlow conducted a prosopography, or the study of a historical group, on three feminist spirituality groups in Austin and its immediate surrounding counties. The feminist spirituality movement, or FSM, is a form of cultural feminism that emerged out of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s. FSM is pluralistic faith practice that is informed by neo-paganism, lesbian separatism, Jewish and Christian feminism, New Age, and Native American spiritualities. Founders of the FSM were unsatisfied by the patriarchal and oppressive religions they had access to, so they left to create their own. The religion does not have one holy book, one leader, or one headquarters, but encourages women to do what it is that works best for them, and many identify as Wiccans. Ultimately, FSM is a political and spiritual movement that aims to transform the lives of the women involved.

Although the FSM has only been found in the English-speaking world, it is not endemic to Austin. While conducting research, Liz realized that histories of the FSM existed only about the West Coast and communities in Madison, Wisconsin. This lack of a comprehensive history of the movement in Central Texas motivated her research. She conducted interviews with the founders of three FSM organizations in the area: The Reformed Congregation of the Goddess – RCG 1st Austin Circle, Tejas Web, and the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Spirituality Group. The women she interviewed all strongly identified as feminists and were in their late 50s and early 60s. These organizations started popping up around Austin in the early 1980s, but their existence was not well documented through pictures or other media. However, they are still active today, although the age of its members tends to be older.

Understanding the role religion has played in shaping American life is an important domain to investigate, and Liz’s work is an important contribution. She ended her presentation with a thought-provoking excerpt from one of her interviews with a founder: “What does it say about a culture whose religious icon is a dead man on a cross, tortured, naked, and bleeding, compared to a culture where the central religious icon is a woman on a throne giving birth? What are that culture’s values, what are that culture’s attitudes, and what kind of institutions would that culture produce?” She leaves it to us to answer these questions.

All photos by Dr. Steve Hoelscher.

Undergrad Research: A Conversation with AMS Senior Max Mills

As part of UT’s Undergraduate Research Week, our department will be hosting its 5th Annual Undergraduate Honors Thesis Symposium, to be held on Friday, April 22, 4-6pm, in Burdine 436a. Today, we feature a conversation with one of our undergraduate senior thesis writers: Max Mills. Here, he describes some fascinating findings from his research, as well as some of his favorite moments that emerged from majoring in American Studies. Enjoy!

Max 22 Birthday

Why did you major in American Studies?

Coming into UT, I had no idea that the American Studies Department existed. I actually only signed up for Intro to American Studies for my second semester because it fulfilled a flag requirement. The class was taught by Dr. Engelhardt, and it was essentially a course investigating the evolution of gender in America. I was hooked after the first day, but it was the lecture on the importance of Tupperware in American culture that made me realize that I needed to be an American Studies major. The courses that I took later down the road confirmed that I made a great choice. I liked what I was able to learn from an American Studies education, and the interdisciplinary nature of the field really appealed to what I wanted to get out of my time at UT. I mean, who else can say that they learned about the importance of Marxism in American film, the impact animals had as agents of American Empire, or the connection between video games and the military à la the “military-entertainment complex” during their college career?

Do you have any favorite memories from your time in American Studies?

There are too many!! But one that comes to mind is from an assignment in Dr. Davis’ Animals and American Culture 370. We had to bring a cultural artifact that related to factory/ industrialized farming, and so I decided to bring an empty carton of eggs. Her class was the last one I had on those days, and so I carried this carton of eggs everywhere I went with me. I mean, everywhere. And for some reason, everybody reacted to me as if I had a scarlet “A” embroided on my chest. I kept getting asked questions like “What’s the deal with the carton of eggs?” It was a cool way of being able to engage with my colleagues about factory farming and once again reinforces how awesome the American Studies Department is.

What is your thesis about, and why did you decide to write a senior honors thesis?

My thesis is an investigation of the integration process of Waxahachie Independent School District, a process that took about eighteen years after Brown v. Board was decided. While many schools in the South did delay school integration for many years, there are several reasons why I decided to write about this topic in Waxahachie. For one, it’s a history that is incredibly personal to me. Not only is it about the community that I grew up in and care for, but there is also a deep family history that runs through this narrative. My grandfather was the assistant superintendent that was hired to help implement the full desegregation of the school district in 1970. There is also, probably not surprisingly, a lack of community history regarding this process. Even though the memories of integration are held within many community members, I felt that a comprehensive history needed to be preserved for future generations.

What kinds of sources do you draw upon in your research?

Most of my sources were primary documents: school board minutes, newspapers, and yearbooks. I also interviewed a few community members that were former students of the all black schools in Waxahachie, as well as the two superintendents that helped integrate the district in 1970. When I was doing archival research in the school administration building in Waxahachie, I actually got to dig through the physical board minutes and correspondence with the office of Housing, Education, and Welfare. Getting that close to history was amazing.

Has your thesis research yielded any surprising findings?
I knew that white supremacy was manifest in my town, but it was the extent of white supremacy that really took me aback. Reading things like “First KKK wedding in Texas occurs in Waxahachie,” and seeing a high school yearbook cover of a black field worker kneeling before a white overseer made me realize what kind of history I was going to expose and write about.

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At first I was worried about upsetting people in my community. But that’s Waxahachie history, and avoiding it or choosing to ignore it is counterproductive to progress, and is even dangerous. I hope that this thesis can spur some much needed conversations about race and place.

How has American Studies prepared you for your post-UT life? Majoring in American Studies has been the most transformative experience I’ve had at UT. Aside from a collection of facts that makes me awesome at dinner parties and trivia nights, the critical reasoning skills I have picked up from the American Studies department will come in handy in whatever I decided to do with my life. Majoring in American Studies has changed the way I perceive the world I live in and how I interact with that world. It has led me to question and contemplate profound moral issues, such as “What is the America we want to live in?” and “What is the responsibility of our America?” These are questions every American should be asking and pondering if we are to make our time on this tiny planet more bearable. The University’s motto is “What Starts Here Changes the World.” Majoring in American Studies has made that more possible for me.

Undergrad Research: Rebecca Bielamowicz named Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Honorable Mention

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Congratulations to AMS senior Rebecca Bielamowicz, who was named a Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Honorable Mention!

Each year the College of Liberal Arts honors 12 seniors with the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Award for their leadership, scholarly achievements and service to the community. The students will be honored at the College of Liberal Arts spring commencement ceremony on May 20.

This year marks the 36th anniversary of the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate program, which has yielded more than 400 alumni who represent the best and the brightest graduates of the College of Liberal Arts. In 2009, the College created the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Alumni Association in an effort to better connect alumni to one another and the college.

Undergrad Research: Molly Mandell Awarded 2015-2016 Rapoport-King Scholarship

SelfPortraitWe are very pleased to announce that UT AMS undergraduate Molly Mandell recently received a Rapoport-King Scholarship from the College of Liberal Arts to support her honors thesis research this school year. A Rapoport-King is a great show of support from the College, and we are very pleased to have Molly represent the great work being done in the department to the wider university community.

If you’d like to learn more about Molly and her research on organic farming in Cuba, check out this interview we did with her last spring.

Undergraduate Research: A visit to Vienna

Every other summer, our department chair Dr. Steve Hoelscher teaches a Maymester course in Vienna, Austria, about the city and historical memory. Undergraduate Rebecca Bielamowicz penned this wonderful essay about her experience in the course, and we share it with you today. For more information about the Maymester in Vienna course, see the department webpage here.

 

Doing American Studies in Austria

Figure 1. Mauthausen_photo by Rebecca Bielamowicz

On a beautiful, mild, and sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of the Austrian countryside, 20 of us gathered around the concrete skeleton of an abandoned swimming pool. Surrounding us in every direction were green, bucolic pastures that stretched out as far as we could see, and we stood at the top of this hill in silence, gazing at an object that seemed so out of place. After letting us contemplate, our tour guide asked us what seemed like too obvious of a question: “Do you know what this is?”

No one responded. If we had been anywhere else, a swimming pool would have seemed like a logical answer, but today we were visiting Mauthausen, the concentration camp that was active between 1938-1945, and such a simple answer seemed beyond reason. The silence continued as we wrestled with imagining the various macabre ways a swimming pool could have been used as an instrument of death in this former camp until our tour guide broke the silence.

“This is exactly what it appears to be. This was a pool that was used by SS officers for leisure.”

He assured us that we were not alone in our shock. In tour after tour, he stopped by this swimming pool to make the point that the SS officers were not some larger-than-life, untouchable evil forces who committed unimaginable injustices against their fellow man; instead, and perhaps more frightening, is understanding that they were human beings who enjoyed normal activities like swimming but who made conscious decisions every day to perpetrate heinous acts.

Figure 2. Karl-Marx-Hof_photo by Rebecca Bielamowicz

As a class the week before, we visited the Karl-Marx-Hof, a municipal housing complex whose mission was the antithesis to the ideology that created Mauthausen. The embodiment of a vision for a better, more-fulfilled humanity, the complex offered affordable housing, on-site doctors’ and dentists’ offices, communal yards, kindergartens, and daycares. This juxtaposition of sites – the embodiment of all of the good and, conversely, all of the bad that humans are capable of – brought me back to the point that our tour guide made: despite how out of control the social world may seem, it is mutable by nature, created and changed by even our smallest actions.

Living in Vienna and studying its history for a month has helped me get in touch with biases that I, of course, didn’t even know I had. Prior to applying to the Maymester program, taught by Prof. Steven Hoelscher, I was skeptical about investing time and money in traveling abroad when I felt that there was so much of the United States that I had not yet seen. Moreover, as an American Studies major, I felt that domestic travel needed to be prioritized before traveling elsewhere. Returning to the U.S., I realize how unfounded this argument was and how I was perpetuating my own self-inflicted tunnel vision: if you’re an American Studies student living in America, there’s all the more reason to travel abroad and defamiliarize yourself from an all-too-familiar history and culture. Only through comparison could I come back and understand the United States on a deeper level and learn to see all histories as the sum of human experiences and therefore integral to understanding U.S. history, no matter how unrelated they may seem across time or geographical location.

Figure 3. American Studies class at Karl-Marx-Hof_photo by Robert Lemon

While traveling and studying the history of the places that I visited has certainly achieved the goal of expanding my worldview, it is also a reminder of the infinite amount of learning there is still to be done. I may know more than when I left, but I also now have a better grasp on all there is left to know.

— Rebecca Bielamowicz, (UT AMS major, Vienna, Austria, July 2015)

 

Figure 4. Rebecca Bielamowicz in Salzburg, Austria_photo by Steve Hoelscher

 

 

Undergrad Research: Molly Mandell named UEPS scholar for 2015-2016 school year!

Today we are thrilled to share a conversation with AMS undergraduate Molly Mandell, who is the recipient of an Unrestricted Endowed Presidential Scholarship (UEPS) for the 2015-16 school year. The UEPS award is one of the most notable scholarships offered to UT students from a wide range of departments. We are super excited that Molly will be representing AMS and doing great work in the year ahead. To find out more about her next project, which involves a trip to Cuba to visit and photograph organic farms, read on!SelfPortrait

Tell me about what you are working on right now.

This summer, I’m working with the school of Undergraduate Studies and American Studies professor Randolph Lewis on an independent research project where I will be going to Cuba to photograph organic farms. I’m trying to understand sustainability there. Here at UT, I worked at the Micro Farm, which was an extension of my summer WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in France and Italy. I’ve always been interested in organic, sustainable farming and agriculture, but that really inspired me to come back and to look into my own community and see what is going on locally.

How have your American Studies classes influenced the way you think about sustainability and organic agriculture?

My American Studies classes have taught me to think really critically in a lot of ways. I didn’t start as an American Studies major. I found it by chance. I’m also interested in the arts. I like how in American Studies you can look at a lot of different topics and see common themes across them and understand how things reflect society. It makes you question society both locally and more broadly.

American Studies classes had a big influence on why I chose to go to Cuba, actually. At first, I didn’t make the connection between agriculture and Cuba. I was just following all the news once the United States started relations again with Cuba. I feel like Cuba is either romanticized or demonized in the United States. Simultaneously, there are all these discussions happening about when the embargo is lifted and America is once again involved with Cuba, how all these things will get better. I think there is a lot of truth to that; many things will improve, but I also think that there are parts of their culture that we don’t talk about that are really unique and special. As I was researching I started to read about agriculture, and it’s fascinating: basically, they were forced to be entirely organic because they haven’t had access to pesticides and machinery. They are now on their way to being one of the most sustainable countries in the world, but that is really subject to change as the United States gets more involved.

Tell us about one of your favorite experiences in an American Studies classroom.

The class that got me involved in American Studies was the Politics of Creativity course with Randolph Lewis in the Fall of 2013. That class was initially a writing flag for me, and I picked it at random. In that class, I did my research paper on Marfa, Texas, and the controversy between Prada Marfa and Playboy Marfa, which are two roadside art installations. I was talking about which one should stay there in relation to Donald Judd’s ideas around art and what it should be. That was really influential for me because I hadn’t really explored my more creative thinking side, and that class pushed me to do so. It caused me to rethink academics in general. There are all these notions about what it means to get a degree and do research–write a research paper. But I get to incorporate photography, as I will in my Cuba project, which is important. The end result for my Cuba project will be a book published as both a paper and eBook. I’m old school, I still like holding things. My photographs will have long captions as an alternate to a long research paper. My American Studies classes have taught me that you can use your creative side in academics, which is really exciting.